Multiculturalism - Speech in Parliament

On 28 August I was a very proud Melburnian. I was proud of the spontaneous response of the city I live in to Operation Fortitude, the suggestion that the newly established Australian Border Force would take part in an operation in Melbourne's CBD and would speak with 'any individual we crossed paths with', warning that officers would be checking visa details. As I said, there was an immediate and spontaneous response from the Melbourne community.

Melburnians rejected this attempt at division. Shortly afterwards there was a statement issued by the commissioner of the border force which said the announcement had been clumsily worded and misconstrued. These words carried a very hurtful, divisive and dangerous meaning, as did the exercise. I am glad the exercise was rejected, but that does not end this story. This is a troubling issue.

I am also very proud of the diversity that makes up the Scullin electorate. I see the member for Parramatta at the table, and I am sure she feels similarly about her electorate. Likewise the member for Holt. For me, the peoples that make up Melbourne's north are our greatest strength, and the way in which cultures from across the world come together, share in one another's experience is simply a beautiful thing and something I am so glad my children are able to experience as well as a good thing for me.

But I am concerned that this fabric might be fraying. I am concerned locally but much more broadly at some of the messages that are being injected into our national debate. In this regard I read with some interest the Scanlon Foundation's most recent report on mapping social inclusion. At many levels this is an affirmation of the great success of the multiculturalism I spoke of moments ago. It shows that perhaps we have the highest current level of positive sentiment towards immigration in the Western world. This is something to be celebrated but not something to take for granted. We see still strong levels of support for multiculturalism in the survey; 84 per cent of respondents agreed that multiculturalism has been good for Australia, a higher level than in some recent surveys.

But there are also negative trends—some consistent across the line of the survey. The survey asks, 'Have you experienced discrimination based on your skin colour, ethnic origin or religion?' and a major change from year to year was the marked increase in the reported experience of discrimination. I feel this in some of the conversations I have been having in the community. I think back to a visit I had two weeks ago with year 6 students, many of whom spoke of their experience with racism directed at themselves and at their peers.

I think about a recent citizenship ceremony that I attended at the City of Whittlesea at which many new citizens admitted the great pride they felt at finally becoming Australian citizens but expressed their concern at the way in which they and their neighbours had been made to feel across some of these recent public debates. I think, of course, about the government's attempt to repeal 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act and the sad fact that again it took a concerted community response, led by the Australian Labor Party, to turn this around, to restore faith in these communities that we are one Australia and will not be divided by reason of race, colour or creed.

I think also of what should have been a great Australian moment—a moment of generosity—when the government announced that we would take an extra 12,000 refugees from the awful crisis in Syria. But the suggestions from many government members that this intake would be selected on grounds other than pure need in accordance with obligations needed to be refuted at the highest levels of government, and this did not happen. Our responsibility in this place, if we are concerned to maintain the great strength of Australia and its people, if we are to stand up for the great achievement of modern Australia—its multiculturalism—is to show leadership.

I see in the communities I represent great leadership at a local level. I think of the interfaith networks and I think of so many community organisations reaching out, encouraging, working against division and working to build bridges of cultural understanding, but it cannot just happen locally. What we need in this place is political leadership that rejects any attempt to divide Australians, that is sensitive to the diverse communities that make up modern Australia and that will stand up for each and every one of them.


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